In May 2008, Rabbi Avraham Sherman and two other judges of the High Rabbinical Court of the Chief Rabbinate ruled that all of the conversions performed by Rabbi Chaim Drukman and Israel’s National Conversion Court since 1999 are retroactively annulled and that Rabbi Drukman and his fellow judges are disqualified judges.
On May 30th, Jonathan Rosenblum defended that decision in the Jerusalem Post, as if it affected only one convert in Ashdod and as if “Rabbi Sherman was stating the overwhelming consensus of halachic opinion”. We shall demonstrate below that that ruling and that article have presented this complex issue in a totally one-sided and inaccurate fashion.
This decision has severe national implications for the State of Israel. Approximately 300,000 Russian immigrants who have made aliyah under the Law of Return since 1990 are not halachically Jewish. Through great effort, the Joint Institute of Jewish Studies set up after the Ne’eman Commission in 1998 and the National Conversion Authority have converted many thousands of Russian immigrants who studied for 1-3 years in very serious courses. Rabbi Sherman’s ruling retroactively annuls all these conversions.
Furthermore, this ruling will deter all future conversions. If a conversion can be annulled many years after it is performed, it means that all conversions are conditional – so why bother converting at all?
This ruling is a desecration of God’s name, which makes a mockery of thousands of converts and hundreds of teachers and rabbis who have worked so hard to convert them.
This episode shows once again that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which was founded by Religious Zionists, is now a haredi institution opposed to all lenient approaches within Jewish law.
Finally, the haredi position has already led to an absurd situation: he who is strict regarding conversion is lenient regarding intermarriage. In the past, this was a Diaspora phenomenon, but now, with the mass aliyah from the Former Soviet Union, if we do not convert the Russian immigrants, they will marry our children and grandchildren!
Rabbi Sherman’s ruling is based primarily on one major premise: A convert must accept all of the mitzvot before converting and observe all the mitzvot after converting. If not, he is not Jewish and his conversion can be retroactively annulled. Furthermore, judges who performed conversions without this requirement, are ipso facto disqualified from serving as judges.
He relies on Rabbis Feinstein, Grodzinsky, Sternbuch, Auerbach, Kuk, Schmelkes, Yosef, Kanievsky, Shach and Elyashiv. Almost all are Haredi rabbis who are opposed to modernity, Zionism and the State of Israel.
Their strict approach to Kabbalat (accepting) Mitzvot stems from two sources:
Rabbi Yitzhak Schmelkes penned a revolutionary responsum in 1876: “A person who converts and accepts the yoke of the mitzvot but does not intend in his heart to observe them – God desires the heart, and he is not a convert”. This approach has no precedent in 2,000 years of halakhic discussions about conversion. Indeed, Rabbi Schmelkes was aware that his ruling contradicts the well-known halachic principal that “devarim shebalev einam devarim” (things of the heart are not things).
The second source for the haredi position is a passage in Bekhorot 30b: “Our Sages taught: …if an idol worshipper came to accept (lekabel) the Torah except for one thing, we do not accept him. R. Yossi b”r Yehudah says: even if the exception be one of the minutiae of the Scribes (i.e. the Sages)”. The major medieval codes of Jewish law such as Maimonides, the Tur and the Shulhan Arukh ignored this passage. It was revived by 19th-20th century rabbis who wanted to reject most converts.
'Entire house of cards rests on just one card'
Thus, for example, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein repeatedly states in his response that a convert must accept all of the mitzvot: “… and without accepting mitzvot, even one detail, behold it is written in Bekhorot 30 that we do not accept him…”
The normative position, however, is found in another passage in the Talmud – Yevamot 47a-b. If a person comes to convert, you ask him if he knows that the Jewish people is “persecuted and oppressed. If he replies ‘I know and yet am unworthy’ he is accepted forthwith, and is given instruction in some of the minor and some of the major commandments… He is also told of the punishment for the transgression of the commandments... And… he is informed of the reward granted for their fulfillment… He is not, however, to be persuaded or dissuaded too much. Kibel (if he accepted/consented), he is circumcised forthwith… (Afterwards, when he is immersed) two learned men must stand by his side and instruct him in some of the minor commandments and in some of the major ones. When he comes up after his immersion, he is deemed to be an Israelite in all respects…”
This baraita, from the second century or earlier, was quoted or paraphrased by Maimonides, the Tur and the Shulhan Arukh.
The key phrase is “kibel” – if he accepted/consented. This obviously does not refer to acceptance of all the mitzvot because he has only been instructed in some of the minor and some of the major mitzvot! So what does it mean?
Rabbi Ouziel (1880-1953), first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, explained as follows: “It is clear from (Yevamot 47a-b) that we do not demand of him to observe the mitzvot and it is also not necessary that the Bet Din know that he will observe them, for if not, no converts will be accepted in Israel, for who will guarantee that this gentile will be loyal to all the mitzvot in the Torah! Rather, they instruct him in some of the mitzvot so that if he wants he should go away and so that he cannot say later ‘if I had known I would not have converted’. And this is before the fact, but after the fact - if they did not instruct him, it is not indispensable… (It) is permissible and a mitzvah to accept converts even though we know that they will not observe all the mitzvot because in the end they will observe them...”
Other prominent Orthodox rabbis who have taken lenient approaches towards kabbalat mitzvot include Chief Rabbi Unterman and Rabbis Kluger, Mashash, Moshe Hacohen, Berkowitz and Angel.
Thus the entire “house of cards” built by Rabbi Sherman rests on just one card: that all poskim agree that all converts must accept all mitzvot. Indeed, this is the position of most Ashkenazic Haredi rabbis since the year 1876. But it is not normative Jewish law. Normative Jewish law for 2,000 years has followed Yevamot that a convert accepts the halakhic system and its rewards and punishments, not all of the mitzvot which he has yet to learn.
To say that a rabbi who rules differently is unfit to judge is the equivalent to saying that a person who waits 3 hours instead of 6 hours between meat and milk does not keep kosher. Different halachic rulings are based on different sources and they are equally legitimate.
I hope and pray that the Supreme Court of Israel will overturn this mistaken and destructive ruling.
I hope and pray that the State of Israel will start to appoint modern Orthodox and other qualified rabbis as dayanim. If not, the Chief Rabbinate will have to be abolished because it will have cut itself off from most of the Jewish people.
Finally, I hope and pray that the State of Israel will make every effort to welcome converts for “a convert is more beloved by God than the multitudes who stood at Mount Sinai” and “a convert who comes to convert, one reaches out a hand in order to bring him under the wings of Heaven”.
Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem